From the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 2 Cor. 1:17b (NRSV) – May 28, 2013.)
Three words come to mind as I read Paul’s question: indecision, duplicity, and dialectic. Each could be described as “saying ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time.”
Indecision or indecisivenss is simply the inability to come to a decision, bouncing back and forth between alternatives, wavering between “yes” and “no” without ever coming to a conclusion. This would not describe Paul, but it certainly does describe many people. Sometimes it’s OK not to make a choice; in fact, sometimes it’s downright necessary! Decisions need to be made at the proper time. Years ago I was a cadet in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). I don’t remember a good deal of that training, but I do remember this: “When it’s not necessary to make a decision, it’s necessary to not make a decision.” Read that again carefully: “When it’s not necessary to make a decision, it’s necessary to not make a decision.” In other words, don’t jump the gun. Don’t commit to an action before you have to. On the other hand, as William James said, “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.” While Paul certainly called for his listeners and correspondents to make decisions and faithful choices, and even though he introduces this question with the words, “Was I vacillating,” I don’t believe that simple indecision is what Paul refers to in this passage.
Indecision may be morally neutral; duplicity, however, is not. Duplicity is deliberate deceptiveness: saying one thing and meaning another, or saying one thing to one person and something different to another. Deceitfulness is one synonym; hypocrisy is another. I suspect that this, rather than mere indecision, is the “ordinary human standard” to which he refers and which, by implication, he eschews. He may be referring to Jesus’ words about oath-taking from the Sermon on the Mount which the Christian community remembered and later recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37) In any event, dishonesty is probably Paul’s issue here.
Post-modern Anglican that I am, however, I can’t help but go a step further and wonder, “But why is in an either/or thing? Why not look at this as both/and?” Saying “Yes, yes” or “No, no” at the same time may be way of working through two opposing theses to arrive at a synthesis; in other words, a dialectic process may be at work here. Paul is such a black-and-white kind of guy that I don’t think he’d have made a very good Anglican dialectician. The “both/and” thing just doesn’t seem to be his style, but as we read his words we can move beyond them to a greater comprehensiveness.
As Paul continues his letter to the Corinthians he writes, “In [Jesus Christ] it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” (vv. 19-20) This is not simply a contradiction of a human “no” with some more powerful yet still human “yes.” Beyond either our “no” or our “yes” is a comprehensive divine affirmation. As Paul elsewhere wrote to the Colossians, “Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11), and similarly to the Ephesians, “[God’s plan is] to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), and earlier to the Corinthians, “[The plan of salvation is that] God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). In other words, the divine “Yes” is a comprehensive synthesis which more than contradicts our human “No” and more than affirms our human “Yes.” Instead, it integrates both in a divine dialectic that produces something new that is neither our “No” nor our “Yes” but God’s redemption.
Reading Paul this morning, I am reminded of the need to make decisions in the best way and at the best time that we can, doing so honestly, but always remembering that even our best, most honest decisions may (and definitely will) be inadequate; all our decisions await God’s comprehensive redemption.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.